Storytelling

Cutting to the Art of the Matter

Ever since my youth, I have been deeply moved by the idea of the older Henri Matisse making paper cut-outs from his wheelchair, moved  by how the French artist was unable to contain the swell of creative energy still bubbling up inside of him, despite illness and failing eyesight.

As it happens, the wildly popular Matisse: the Cut Outs exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art has recently closed its doors, but not before staying open for a 55 hour stretch to accommodate last-minute visitors.

No surprise, this exhibit also included a wide variety of cut outs inspired workshops for families with children 4 -14.  A children’s book, Matisse’s Garden was published for the occasion.

I contacted Elizabeth Margulies, Director of Family Programs and Initiatives at MoMA, who kindly agreed to discuss the concepts of empathy, art and engagement.

Elizabeth Margulies, Director of Family Programs and Initiatives at MoMA

Elizabeth Margulies, Director of Family Programs and Initiatives at MoMA

“At first,” Margulies confided “I thought this isn’t a goal of ours. In mulling it over I would say ‘It is in there.’ "

"Our goal with these workshops is for families to engage with the works of art, engage with each other and to engage with the institution.”

Within Family Programs at MoMA, freelance educators create the actual lesson plans and conduct the workshops based on themes and general ideas identified by Margulies and her colleague, Cari Frisch. 

The workshops themselves are two hour experiences, split between gallery time and actual art-making.

The Matisse workshops included all targeted age-groups, which is not always the case. 

“The workshops don’t normally focus on the artist’s personal story,” Margulies said. However, many of the educators shared images of Matisse at work to start the conversation.  Seeing the Master in his home making his art led to a deeper understanding of his very personal process, promoting empathy in the viewers.

Participants saw Matisse cutting paper from his wheelchair and re-using bits that had landed on the floor. They saw his assistant, who stood on a ladder to pin the pieces on the wall.  Later, upon examining the Cut Outs in the gallery, some of the families noticed the pinholes.

Through the workshops visitors could experiment with “drawing with scissors” and learn more about Matisse’s process of creating cut outs.

 “For Matisse it was the cutting, or ‘drawing with scissors’ that was important, as well as the arranging and rearranging of the shapes. The gluing down of the works was done by assistants and was for him the equivalent of framing the work. We tried to get this across to families in our workshops—that Matisse’s works are not considered collage, but cut-outs. In the studio, we emphasized the cutting and arranging of shapes. We even gave out Glue Dots that were removable so that families could rearrange their compositions when they got home.”

 Starting in April, 2015, MoMA will be offering a series of workshops around a very different type of art, Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, comprised of 60 tempera paintings from two separate collections. 

Storytelling Through Art

is the title of this series of workshops, appropriate for artwork that is very much based on the oral history tradition.

 

The Migration Series, first exhibited in 1941, depicts the migration of African Americans from the rural south to urban north between the two World Wars.

Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 58: “In the North the Negro had better educational facilities.” Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12″ (45.7 x 30.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Jacob Lawrence. The Migration Series. 1940-41. Panel 58: “In the North the Negro had better educational facilities.” Casein tempera on hardboard, 18 x 12″ (45.7 x 30.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

The Migration Series paintings have already been put to excellent use in the classroom.  A teaching kit is available at phillipscollection.org.  MoMA’s workshops will be given between April 6 and May 17 and will involve adults with children 8 to 10.

The planning for these workshops is only in the earliest stages, said Margulies, but she still has ideas.  “You could stop at one panel talk about composition and colour. How do you know someone is migrating based on what you see? What is the body language telling you about the people in the painting?”

In general, the workshops will ask families to think about a migration story of their own and how they might represent that visually.

What is the penultimate goal of all these MoMA Family workshops?

“We try to get families to use each other as resources, to talk about what they already know…to help them understand they have something to share, that they know something about colour, line and people, for example. We pose questions that make it a little less scary to share their ideas.”

Margulies continued, “I’ve always been interested in that space between the work of art and the person. The process of slowing down and looking at the work of art is central to the experience of making your own meaning.”

Well, slowing down is part of empathy-building process (at least, according to the research I’ve conducted on the subject) as is feeling safe enough to express your ideas and to exercise your imagination.

MoMA’s family workshops promote the good work New York’s Museum of Modern Art and their goal to engage children and adults in storytelling through works of art.

 

BY: DOROTHY NIXON

Contributing from Montreal, Quebec CN

For more information on MoMA's events, please visit www.MoMA.org